Under normal times my annual Mets season preview article would have been published in a late March issue of the Queens Chronicle.
Of course these are anything but normal times. COVID-19 forced Major League Baseball to cancel the first three months of the season. Getting any baseball going again once things appeared to be more under control back in June required complex negotiations between the MLB team owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
After a lot of acrimony the two sides settled on a 60-game season. To minimize travel, which is a must given that 60 games will be played in 66 days (if all goes well), which in theory should also reduce exposure to the coronavirus, MLB will have teams in both leagues playing regionally. Teams in the Eastern, Central and Western divisions will be facing each other exclusively and that includes interleague games.
A short season is not even close to being the biggest difference between this and past seasons. No fans will be allowed to attend any games. Rosters have been expanded from 25 to 30 players — for the first two weeks, then reduced to 28 and then 26 two weeks after that — and there will be a taxi squad of three players who will dress for games and can replace a player who is feeling ill or gets injured. Since there won’t be any minor league baseball played this year, teams can keep an additional 27 players in reserve. Think of it as a 60-man roster instead of the usual 40-man.
Let’s take a look at the 2020 New York Mets.
Former Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran was named as the successor to Mickey Callaway who was fired as the team’s manager a few days after the conclusion of the 2019 season. In mid-January Beltran was forced to step down after being implicated in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. Given all that has happened in the world since then it seems as if the Beltran fiasco took place when woolly mammoths roamed the Earth.
With few options left, Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen looked in-house and selected 38-year-old Luis Rojas, who in spite of his relatively young age, had spent a long time managing in the Mets minor league system, to replace the deposed Beltran.
One big advantage Rojas will have is that he managed a number of the Mets when they were minor leaguers. With a short season, mutual familiarity can only help.
Rojas may bring other intangible assets with him.
In order to prevent marathon games, teams on offense will start extra innings with a runner on second base. This has been used in the minor leagues and Rojas has managed his share of those games in the Eastern League.
In an effort to reduce potential injuries to pitchers, the designated hitter will be employed in both the National and American Leagues. The DH has been used throughout the minors so Rojas has plenty of experience employing it.
Historically the Mets have rarely been an offensive juggernaut so their success, or lack of, has depended on their pitching.
Early in spring training at Port St. Lucie, Fla., the Mets found out they would be without their No. 2 starter, Noah “Thor” Syndergaard, who is missing the 2020 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Amazin’s would also be missing their reliable third starter, Zach Wheeler, who departed as a free agent and signed a lucrative contract with the nearby Philadelphia Phillies.
In spite of these losses Mets fans knew they had the best pitcher in baseball on their side, Jacob deGrom, who has consecutive Cy Young Awards to back up that claim. Therefore it was understandable many a Mets fan held his breath last Tuesday when deGrom was pulled from an intrasquad game after one inning because of a stiff back. An MRI taken the next day came back negative and by Thursday he was telling the press he would want to start tomorrow’s season opener against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. You could feel a collective exhale from Mets fans all over the world.
With Syndergaard shelved and Wheeler now working 100 miles southwest of Flushing, the Mets will have to rely on southpaw starter Steven Matz, who has been maddeningly inconsistent, as well as onetime Toronto Blue Jays ace and Long Island native Marcus Stroman, who was frankly mediocre for the two months he was a Met last season after being obtained in a surprise trade at the July 31 deadline.
Rounding out the rotation will be a pair of veterans with good career stats but who are coming off disappointing 2019 seasons, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha. Van Wagenen signed both as free agents and he is obviously hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Their less-than-stellar recent numbers made them affordable for the Mets, whose payroll has not recovered from the Wilpon family’s involvement with Bernie Madoff a decade ago.
The Mets bullpen was the team’s bete noire in 2019. The Mets should have been at least a wild card participant — had their two key relievers, setup man Jeurys Familia and closer Edwin Diaz, acted like firemen instead of arsonists in the late innings. Mets fans became all too accustomed to hearing the term “blown save” last year.
If any players should benefit from the absence of fans at Citi Field in 2020, it’s those two.
While the odds are neither Familia or Diaz will be as awful as they were last year, Van Wagenen knew he had to have an insurance policy and was forced to spend $10 million on longtime New York Yankees hard-throwing reliever Dellin Betances, who became a free agent after the 2019 season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman did not see a future for him in the Bronx in spite of his posting good numbers during his career.
Also bolstering the bullpen will be lefty Justin Wilson, Tyler Bashlor and Drew Smith, who was acquired two years ago from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for first baseman Lucas Duda, but missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Robert Gsellman, who has been a spot starter, will probably be utilized in long relief situations, but is currently dealing with triceps tightness.
And that brings me to Seth Lugo, who was the most dependable arm out of the bullpen for the Mets last year. The problem is Lugo wants to be a starting pitcher and in a fair world he shouldn’t be punished for his success as a reliever. Van Wagenen has made it clear, however, he doesn’t value his wishes.
Lugo has told me many times he will never turn down an opportunity to start a game even if it’s with little advance notice. If there is any emergency start situation the odds are rookie David Peterson, Walker Lockett or Corey Oswalt will be selected by Rojas.
Wilson Ramos will be back for his second year with the Mets. He remains one of the best offensive catchers in the game. His defense and ability to call pitches, however, were issues in 2019. Noah Syndergaard made it clear he wanted Tomas Nido to serve as his personal catcher.
Ramos has missed a good chunk of summer training camp with what has been described cryptically as “personal issues.” The Mets have to hope he resolves all of them quickly.
Nido, along with the always reliable Rene Rivera, will be backup backstops.
The unquestionable bright spot for the Mets in 2019 was first baseman Pete Alonso, who set a record by belting 53 home runs. He quickly became a team leader and was very at ease talking to the media.
Alonso is quite valuable in the lineup because he’s a solid contact hitter for a guy who is one of the best power hitters in the game. Of course, that is not to say that he isn’t prone to striking out, as nearly all big home run hitters tend to be. In addition, he is a pretty good fielder, as he has little trouble scooping up poor throws from infielders that bounce in the dirt first.
Thirty-seven-year-old Robinson Cano, who reported to Citi Field summer camp just last week, is slated to be the starting second baseman.
Cano was acquired, along with the aforementioned closer Diaz, from the Seattle Mariners, in what was Van Wagenen’s first major deal as the Mets general manager. To say it hasn’t been a good one would be a colossal understatement.
Cano had two different stints on the injured list during the first half of 2019 and seemed to strike out with every other at-bat when he did play. He seemed to turn it around in the second half, including by having a three-home run game, the first in his career. The Mets are hoping Cano can stop Father Time as he did from July on last year.
Amed Rosario seems to have finally matured at shortstop. Ever since he was signed by the Mets out of high school in the Dominican Republic, Rosario was tabbed as an “untouchable” whenever trades were proposed by other teams.
He failed to live up to the hype in his rookie season as he frequently struck out lunging at bad pitches. Defensively he made some plays that were ESPN SportsCenter highlights, but he would muff many easy opportunities. He was far more accomplished in his sophomore season as he became more disciplined both at the plate and in the field.
Jeff McNeil is ideally more of a second baseman than he is a third baseman but given that he is the toughest out in the Mets lineup you have to find a place for him. Since there is no one making a huge salary at third base, expect this to be his primary position. McNeil also spent some time in the outfield.
The Mets have depth in the infield as well.
Dominic Smith, who many thought would be the first baseman of the future in Flushing until Alonso came along, acquitted himself well in 2019 in spite of missing significant playing time with a foot stress fracture and not getting a lot of at-bats when he was healthy. He ended 2019 on a high note with a dramatic walk-off home run in the 11th inning against the Atlanta Braves in the season finale. He may get some playing time in the outfield where there appears to be more paucity.
J.D. Davis, who was acquired from the Houston Astros at the end of 2018 in one of Van Wagenen’s better trades, is another player without a position. He is a big-league slugger but he will never be a threat to win a Gold Glove, though he does possess a powerful throwing arm. Callaway used him at third base and in the outfield last year. Mets fans held their breath every time a ball was hit to him at the hot corner.
Jed Lowrie, who like Cano and deGrom was represented by Van Wagenen when he was an agent at CAA, was signed to a lucrative two-year deal at the beginning of 2019 by his old rep in his new duties as Mets GM. A mysterious leg ailment started occurring during 2019 spring training. He wound up last year with a grand total of seven at-bats and going hitless. Lowrie did play in the recent intrasquad games at Citi Field but at his age you have to wonder about his productivity, as he will start the season on the injured list. The Amazin’s can only hope to get some production from their $20 million investment after a long layoff.
Other infielders in the mix are veterans Max Moroff, Eduardo Nunez, Gordon Beckham and longtime Mets farmhand Luis Guillorme.
Home run slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who has not been seen in Queens in nearly two years, is set to return for the last season of his contract. At age 34 and coming off a barrage of foot problems it would seem inevitable Cespedes will be a bit rusty. Then again, the mercurial outfielder could surprise and carry the Mets on his back as he did in 2015 when they made it to the World Series.
Watching Cespedes run at three-quarter speed to first base trying to beat out a ground ball Saturday night in an exhibition game against the Yankees, it was evident he is still hurting. His lack of mobility will probably force Rojas to keep him off the field and restrict him to being a designated hitter.
Brandon Nimmo has become a fan favorite because of his sunny disposition, hustle and his keen batting eye. Rojas would be wise to have him lead off in the batting order. He can play all three outfield positions.
Michael Conforto is entering his fifth year as a starting outfielder. He has been a reliable source of power with solid home runs and runs-batted-in based on his career numbers but he has not hit for a high enough average to be considered an elite player who is a perennial All-Star.
Others who should see some playing time are veteran Melky Cabrera, defensive wiz but light-hitting Jake Marisnick and Ryan Cordell, who played a couple of seasons as a reserve for the Chicago White Sox but really impressed with both his power and ability to track down tough fly balls in centerfield during the recent summer camp.
It’s impossible to predict how any team will perform in this kind of crazy environment. With the likelihood of new ownership for the Mets on the horizon, Van Wagenen and Rojas have to hope the lineup they put out when the season begins tomorrow is not as somnambulant as it was against the Yankees in last weekend’s exhibition games. No team, obviously, can afford to get off to a sluggish start with so few games scheduled to be played.
Let’s hope everyone stays healthy and that Major League Baseball can at least have its 60-game season. Given the current spiking COVID-19 numbers in parts of the United States, which made the Canadian government inform the Toronto Blue Jays they couldn’t play home games north of the border, that is far from a certainty.